Here's a fine-dining experience in store

Sunday Gourmet

April 24, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Pascale's Italian Deli and Pork Store gets my vote for most unusual name for a fine-dining restaurant. Of course, it's only a fine-dining restaurant Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the time it's, well, an Italian deli and pork store. (Call for the deli's hours and prices.)

But on those weekend nights, the tiny second floor is transformed into an upscale dining room. That means the big screen TV is turned off, Frank Sinatra is turned on, and the tablecloths come out.

The room looks very fresh, newly painted with highly varnished hardwood floors, exposed brick and dark green walls. The five or six tables (depending on how many are pushed together for larger parties) sport white linen, candles and handsome glassware. Unfortunately the space is so small and has so little fabric or soundproofing that one party having a good time will ruin the evening of everyone else in the room.

If noise isn't a problem for you, there's much to like at Pascale's. The menu, for instance, comes as a happy surprise. It's Italian, of course, but quite elegant in its own small way. The owner, James Hansen, boasts that he has a New York chef. (A dubious selling point in Baltimore during baseball season, but still.)

There are no Italian restaurant cliches here. A lush green puree of sweet peas gracefully surrounded the snowy lumps of crab at its center. Instead of deep fat frying calamari, the kitchen grilled it, topped it with olive butter and arranged it with ratatouille.

The fresh taste of baby spinach leaves, green beans, bits of bacon and blue cheese was brightened by the salad's well-balanced dressing. I wouldn't change a thing. On the other hand, tomato slices layered with fresh mozzarella and drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction will be a better dish in a few months when summer tomatoes arrive on the scene.

Gold cubes of butternut squash added color to and cut the creamy richness of risotto, while truffle oil and the slight char of the dish's grilled shrimp provided more complex flavor notes.

Our waiter told us his favorite dish was the lamb tenderloin with wax beans and braised leeks; but given the name of the place, how could we not try the pork tenderloin? It's hard to imagine the lamb would have been any better: The flavorful, fork-tender meat lovingly surrounded a filling of sun-dried tomato pesto, with spinach and pine nuts.

A fresh, moist rockfish fillet rested lightly on broccoli raab, the pleasantly bitter greens. Fingerling potatoes and cherry tomatoes added color to the plate, but I could have done without the uninteresting broth that surrounded them.

If homemade pasta is on a menu, I want to order it. But in this case, the pappardelle -- broad, fluted-edged noodles -- were wonderfully tender but slightly salty; and the arugula that the pasta was tossed with couldn't overcome the added saltiness of kalamata and green olives and prosciutto. In general, the kitchen has a generous hand with the salt shaker. If that's a concern for you, tell your waiter in advance.

Pascale's plays it safe with its very limited dessert menu, but most folks will be happy with the choice of an individual warm chocolate cake with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, creme brulee and tiramisu -- especially when a lot of whipped cream is also involved.

The weekend-nights-only restaurant is already being discovered, so reservations are a must. Don't even think about just showing up at Pascale's. And expect your meal to be leisurely; everything is cooked to order and the kitchen staff is small.

Pascale's Italian Deli and Pork Store

Food: *** (3 stars)

Service: *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere: ** (2 stars)

Where: 2304 Boston St., Canton

Hours: Dining room open Friday and Saturday nights for dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $7.99-$10.99; Entrees: $15.99-$24.99

Call: 410-327-7171

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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